For customers that are looking for an alternative to their existing enterprise data backup solution, perhaps with an eye toward improving their users’ endpoint data protection, there are a range of possible approaches, including server-based backup solutions, cloud backup solutions and single-device products that run on the server or computer containing the data to be backed up (sometimes called “do it yourself” backup).
In this article we’ll examine server-based backup (SBU) solutions that handle endpoint data protection and help you determine which kinds of customers are a good fit for SBUs, as well as what to consider as you guide customers toward a product choice. In preparation for this article, Storage Switzerland interviewed Acronis, Arkeia, CommVault, CA and Symantec; the features and functionality of other products in this category were also considered.
SBU products run on a dedicated server (or virtual machine), collect backup data from other servers or endpoint devices (desktops or laptops), and typically store it on a direct-attached or network-attached storage device. Most of these products can replicate these data sets to remote locations or to a cloud-based storage provider.
To handle endpoint data protection, most SBU vendors offer for-fee modules that get installed on the endpoint devices, although some use an agentless technology.
That use of the cloud shouldn’t be confused with the distinct category of cloud storage solutions–those that ultimately store data in the cloud but may also use a local storage device that captures backups, provides faster restores and facilitates more efficient transfer to and from the cloud. These hybrid cloud storage systems, also called cloud storage gateways, can be sold as hardware and software, which the customer connects to a cloud storage provider of their choice, or as a complete service that includes the cloud storage component along with hardware and/or software that installs on the customer’s site.
With this overlap between these cloud solutions and SBUs that provide a cloud option, the takeaway for VARs should be that choosing server-based backup doesn’t preclude the ability to store data in the cloud. And for all but the smallest environments, most pure cloud solutions will require software be running on-site–either on a hybrid appliance or as an agent on each client server or endpoint device.
Assessing customers for server-based backup suitability
For VARs faced with deciding among several technology alternatives for meeting a fundamental customer requirement like data protection, the process of elimination is a good first step. Server-based endpoint backup solutions come from a number of prominent vendors, which have a wide variety of features and functionality differences. But, in general, customers need to be large enough (including the number and types of devices to be backed up) to justify their cost and relative complexity, compared with do-it-yourself backup or the simpler cloud backup services. The typical SBU customer usually has a number of application servers to back up, not just office computers, laptops and file servers. Companies that have virtualized servers, clustered applications, and multiple locations that need centralized enterprise data backup for critical applications–like production databases–are traditionally a strong fit for SBU products.
The customer also has to be able (and willing) to run and maintain an application like backup on-site. If the customer is smaller, doesn’t have application servers and is determined to use an outsourced solution for data protection, it’s probably not a good candidate for SBU.
If the customer is looking to consolidate several backup point solutions that handle different parts of its infrastructure with one enterprise data backup system, it fits the profile of the kind of company you should target.
In addition, if the customer has regulatory, security or compliance requirements to handle its own data (which can deter sending it to the cloud, for example), this also makes the customer a good target for an SBU product.
When comparing different vendors’ server-based solutions, there are a number of characteristics to consider. The way they handle the following factors and their impact on the environment should be understood.
Support for desktops and laptops devices. Most SBU products handle desktops and laptop computers with an agent, similar to the way they back up server clients. None of the companies interviewed for this article currently have direct support for tablets or mobile devices, although several said it was on the roadmap. The reality, at least today, seems to be that tablet devices are usually synched with an endpoint device that is backed up, like a laptop. If this situation changes in the future and users start using tablets in place of laptops, for example, direct support of these devices will be a requirement for SBUs.
Support for mobile devices. Email for PDAs and other handhelds may be controlled by a corporate email server, but IM, texting and other communications applications are usually hosted or supported by a telecommunications company and can involve the company that owns the application itself, like Skype, for example. To the extent that business-related work is done with one of these applications and company data is created or stored on them, mobile devices may represent an open-ended responsibility to products like SBUs, which present themselves as comprehensive data protection solutions. Although the lack of support for these nontraditional data clients may not drive the ultimate product decision today, this may not be the case in the future. Such a scenario could force IT to address issues of data protection on mobile devices more directly and make this a primary requirement for server-based backup solutions.
Bandwidth optimization. Companies being considered for an SBU will probably have remote offices or remote users or both, and need to transfer data regularly over the Internet. For intra-office transfers, dedicated WAN optimization devices are available, but these add cost to the infrastructure. Some SBU products can address this situation by providing their own deduplication, compression and bandwidth throttling. For endpoint devices, SBU solutions need to have some form of bandwidth optimization built into the client software. Some have source deduplication and compression, which reduce the number of bytes that actually “walk the wire” from a remote device back to corporate. Many can store backups internally and schedule when these transfers are made to the backup server. Some even have the ability to throttle the bandwidth used for this process. For many environments, how an SBU product handles the bandwidth required to transfer data over a WAN could be an important differentiator.
Server virtualization. VMware and the other server virtualization platforms are a fact of life for most companies that would consider an SBU solution, so these products need to deal with backing up and restoring individual VMs as well as the virtualization host servers themselves; all of the companies we spoke with for this story said their products do so.
Backing up VMs as an image offers a number of advantages to the file-level backup that SBU products have historically provided. This process can achieve near-zero-time backup windows using snapshots and successive changed-block technology, which also reduces the complexity of backup jobs and handles much less data. Image-based backups can actually be used by SBU systems to improve backups from all servers and endpoint devices, virtual and physical. Some SBU products can also provide file-level recovery from these images, even without first restoring the VM image. This means quick file recovery. It also means you don’t have to do a special backup to get a granular recovery.
If the environment has a lot of virtualized servers, obviously the SBU should provide a simple and efficient method of backing these VMs up at the image level. This is a dynamic area for backup and recovery technology; you should confirm which virtualization platforms the SBU products support, and you should examine each vendor’s virtualization feature set carefully along, with its roadmap in the virtual environment.
SBU architecture. Some of these products have been around for a very long time and have been integrated with other products along the way. While this adds features, it can also add complexity to the architecture. Alternatively, products with a so-called common code base were developed from the ground up with the features and functionality they have; their vendors often claim the products can handle data more efficiently (use less resources) and are easier to use than the products that combined other programs to get new functionality, such as Symantec NetBackup, EMC NetWorker and others. VARs should understand the architectures of the SBU products they’re selling and determine their impact for each potential customer environment.
The cloud. As mentioned above, if storing data in the cloud is appealing, you should explore the details of an SBU product’s cloud integration. Some have formal partnerships with cloud providers, while others simply provide a way to designate a cloud volume as a destination for backed-up data. How an SBU system handles the cloud option is probably an important characteristic.
Pricing, ease of use and complexity. Pricing and ease of use are two big differentiators for server-based backup solutions. Given how much they do and how some are essentially combinations of several pieces of software, they can be fairly complex in the way they operate. For some customers, ease of use can be a very important decision factor. For VARs, complexity can also be a concern as it often translates into more training for engineering people and more confusion with pricing and configuration during the sales process.
When approaching a customer about an SBU product, you should take care to set realistic expectations about backup solutions in general. If the environment is appropriate for an SBU in the first place, you must be sure customers understand that the choice for them won’t be between an on-site, SBU solution that must be run and maintained by IT personnel and a solution that enables them to simply “throw data into the cloud.” As mentioned above, even pure cloud solutions typically include on-site storage and software to meet performance requirements. So customers won’t be able to completely outsource their data protection–at least not effective data protection. Also, you should examine and plan for the recovery experience accordingly, something that customers often try to ignore.
This was first published in April 2011